Friday, March 31, 2006


Cage After 1970: Essential?

So I was thinking about Cage’s output since 1970 again, and decided to show what I’m talking about graphically, by plotting the number of works for each year, 1932-1992 (I did include lost works from the 30’s and 40’s; I did not include some unscored events).

(view the original full size: )
You can obviously see the huge increase in the 80’s and 90’s (obviously the 1992 dot is misleading; Cage completed 11 works by his August 12th death, so I’d project that his output that year would have been 18 works).

However, this graph is not very smooth, and I’d like something more explicit and easier on the eyes. Therefore I made a plot showing each year Cage worked, and the contribution of that year to his total output as a percentage. The result is a monotonically increasing function of the year, and you can relate the year to the percentage of his total output Cage had completed as of that year:
(view the original full size: )
This leads to an interesting conclusion:

The Cage biographies that ignore Cage’s work after 1969’s HPSCHD are ignoring roughly half of his output.

That is, what I said before about the later work being important too was an understatement. It would be better to say that ignoring work after 1969 is like discussing Bach’s music and not mentioning his cantatas!

January of 2005 I made a series of flashcards in Powerpoint that I had intended to use to mentally cluster Cage’s output (see previous post) by putting the cards in separate piles, grouping similar music together. I never finished the post 1970 stuff, and maybe now would be a good time to do that, since my library here has copious Cage material and I know more than I did then. I’ll see what I come up with.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Clustering Cage

First, some useless knowledge: John Cage is the 116th most-recorded composer according to Arkivmusic’s count of recordings.  That puts him just above Alessandro Scarlatti and ready to surpass John Phillip Sousa at any moment!  This entertains me far too much.  I won’t be satisfied until he moves up 35 places and unseats CPE Bach! :-D

Some of you may wonder about that “CageMap” link to your left.  My original purpose in designing it was to plot out the relationships between different Cage works on an axis where x refers to the degree to which performance of a work is indeterminate and y refers to the degree to which chance operations was used in the composition process.  I wanted to expand it by color coding based on instrumentation, but I was unable to find an easy way to make those colors work.

So this evening I hit upon another idea.  I dug up my old program from a pattern recognition class that does k-means clustering on n-dimensional data fed into it.  I thought it would be fun to see how an automatic algorithm groups Cage’s output.  As a test, I placed the first 50 works (alphabetically from my index) into a spreadsheet, and rated all 50 on 8 attributes, referring to the indeterminacy and chance operations used (as mentioned) and use of instrument categories: voice, keyboard, strings, winds, percussion and electronics.  The numbers are somewhat arbitrary (for example, solo piano works had a 2 for keyboard and 0 for all else, but prepared piano has a 2 for piano and 2 for percussion).  It is moderately ad-hoc, but I thought the results were sufficiently promising to mention here.  

After some testing with variable numbers of clusters, I found that 8 groups produces an interesting result, in that the groupings in my mind seem fairly intuitive.  I have given each group a category name and listed the works included in each of them below:  I’ve put asterisks by the names of groupings that I think will be subsumed into larger groups once all the works are added to the clustering program.  

Vocal Music
Alphabet, Apartment House 1776, Aria, ear for EAR

Traditional (more or less) Piano Music
Ad Lib, Cheap Imitation for piano, Chess Pieces, Crete, Dad, Dream, Three Easy Pieces,

Wind Ensemble Music (???)*
Eight, Composition for Three Voices

Percussion Music
Amores, And the Earth Shall Bear Again, A Chant With Claps, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, First Construction, Second Construction, Third Construction, Credo in US, Three Dances, Four Dances, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, Double Music, Bacchanale, A Book of Music

Orchestral Music
Atlas Eclipticalis, Cheap Imitation for orchestra, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Concert for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Dance/4 Orchestras, Sixteen Dances

Indeterminate Instrumental Music*
The Beatles 1962-1970, Composed Improvisations, ASLSP, Cheap Imitation for violin, Chorals

Indeterminate Performances*
Alla ricarco della silenzio perduto, Branches, But What About the Noise..., Child of Tree

Indeterminate Music with Electronics
Bird Cage, Cartridge Music, A Dip in the Lake (all parts), Electronic Music for Piano

Now, I think if I were to do this for all 246 works in my listing, I will have something akin to the Cage Map (but it may not be quite as pretty) and a thematic catalog to boot.  Cage would probably hate me for it though ;-)  Still, for me I find it easy to think about Cage’s early work (he did serial or serial-like music and worked with percussion ensembles, then invented the prepared piano, then moved into chance compositions and “idea pieces” that became progressively more indeterminate by the late 60s).  But I have a much poorer grasp of Cage’s output after 1970.  Why is this?  Well, the popular discussions in encyclopedias and such ignore post-1970 Cage.  Even his biography, The Roaring Silence, seems to degenerate into a tiring list of Cage’s itinerary during the late 70s, 80s and 90s.  Also, a fair amount of his 80s output is poorly documented and/or unrecorded.  I feel like the threads are there to trace but I am just not seeing them.

I’ll work on this a little more tomorrow evening I hope.  Fortunately for me, this sort of music clustering is directly related to my thesis (except in the thesis I am generating the characteristics from audio files and using a better algorithm) so it’s not quite as useless as my glassy-eyed readers might be thinking ;-)

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Music for Wind Instruments

I really am done now! The Review Index is updated as of the publishing of this. The only gaps left are for works I anticipate buying pretty soon but haven't bought. I am going to gradually incorporate the "unrecorded" section into my Index as well, to encourage people browsing it to make recordings ;-)

Also of note--I have (finally!) gone back and added the reviews for Sonatas and Interludes (and others with it) and a few other 'blank' pages. I'm going backwards in time, finding all the empty spaces, and filling them in.

Anyway, there was another gap I thought I'd filled but didn't so here it is:

Music for Wind Instruments
This is music for some wind instruments, namely a flute, clarinet, basson, oboe and horn. The first movement is a trio that contrasts some melodies from the flute and clarinet with brief grumpy and thrust-like sounds from the bassoon. There is a distinctive call and response pattern between the duo and the bassoon. The oboe and horn go at it alone in the second movement. Actually, they seem mostly to cooperate on some cold modern melodies. The final movement has them all come in! It seems pretty much all staccato, and with very suddent breakouts of each instruments. It's a return to the frantic feel of the first movement. Overall, it's pretty enjoyable for an obscure and fairly slight Cage work.

Saturday, March 25, 2006



Well, I still have a few blank spots on the list that somehow I missed earlier, so I need to fill those in.  I’m excited by all the new Cage releases!  Several first recordings including Four Dances, Composition for Three Voices, Chess Pieces, and Eight.  They all have finally all showed up on Arkivmusic, so I’ll be ordering soon!

Or maybe not, because their shipping fees are just awful.  Amazon will not be getting them in any time soon though, and I would prefer to order them all simultaneously.  


Freeman Etudes 25 – 32
Considering how much I whine about there, I’m surprised I missed them.  This time for a change of pace I actually tried to use them to help me sleep and, surprisingly, it worked pretty well.  The screeching complaints of the violin as it is tortured do not strike me as relaxing, but somehow the lack of melody or rhythm in the performance made it easy to break that concious focus that keeps me awake.  The only thing I don’t like about these Etudes is that there’s really nothing distinctive about any of them.  I guess I wish Cage had varied the materials subjected to chance operations a little bit—some pieces could have all possible sounds, others would have a more limited range.  That would be much more interesting ‘study’ I think.  

I am going from zero information on this one, besides the 1989 date and that it is for piano.  The performance seems more 50’s-like, because I hear the distinct sound of noises from outside the piano, but they do not distract me and do not feel like a gimmick.  Like other early number pieces, it seems to be composed from a wider variety of material choices, including single notes of varying duration and chords (many of the later pieces use primarily long, drawn out single tones).  To be honest, although I am nearly certain the work was composed using chance operations, I have a strong sense of melody when I listen to the music.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve listened to so much of this sort of music that my brain no longer tries to hear normal melodies and every sequence of notes is pleasing, or the style in which it is played simply makes the separate parts work together like magic.  In any case, it’s an effective and affecting performance.

49 Waltzes for the Five Bouroughs
This work from 1977 is a lot like Cage’s other “dance” work, which was for recordings and performances in Chicago.  This one, however, utilizes 147 addresses in New York, which on this Waltz Project record was taken as locations for recordings of waltez.  In general, it sounds pretty much like A Dip in the Lake except that additional music is added on top of the city sounds.  The city sounds themselves also feel a bit more powerful, somehow, in this recording.  The effect is like being enveloped.

I’m not so sure I agree with the music being added to the recordings, though.  It seems to me the reason Cage refers to dances in 49 Waltzes and A Dip in the Lake is that the scattered points on the map might resemble some kind of dance pattern, moving from one location to the other.  I don’t know how choreography works, but this idea came to mind seeing one of the maps.  Either that, or it’s simply an emphasis on the movement needed to get from one location to another in the city.

This is a review of the awful quality recording on this site: .  

This is an excerpt from a 1968 performance where the output of the sound system is connected to the moves made on a chess board.  I believe the original recording was in sad shape already, and adding to it the awful Quicktime compression artifacts (it sounds like a chicken, frankly) doesn’t do it much good.  That’s too bad because the sounds actually sound pretty cool: lots of birdlike forest noises (think Tudor’s Rainforest—except maybe these are real birds?) along with some ominous low and long tones.  The performance was to suggest the coming together of sound sources.  You can go hear it and judge for yourself.  It seems pretty cool to me.

My concentration on the game would stink with all that racket though ;-)

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Dance/4 Orchestras

OK, OK, so my last entry was like 4 weeks ago or something.  The real world got the better of me!  But here’s a few gaps to be filled in tonight.  There still remains just a few items I had forgotten about, plus reviews of two upcoming discs: Chess Pieces and Works for Percussion 4, featuring 4 Dances.  

Dance/4 Orchestras
This is a case of a mysterious file I have but whose origin I cannot remember!  Probably it is a re-encoded version of the Real media file available on the Internet.  I’m a little bit surprised how much I like it!  It was written in 1982 and uses a time bracket notation.  Four orchestras are separated around the performance area, so there is a spatial element to the music that the recording does not represent.  What is most striking is the forceful nature of the music; the instruments seem to play uniformly short notes, and the notes are almost always played simultaneously with other instruments, so there is a forceful, chugging sense to the music.  That’s pretty rare in Cage’s other number works; this music is quite stormy!  The only thing that would make it better is actually being surrounded by the orchestras and hearing them from different locations.  

Party Pieces
This is music for nonspecific instrumentation that Cage wrote in collaboration with Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson.  If you wanted to stretch things you could claim it’s an early exercise in indeterminacy, since each composer would write a bar of music without seeing what the previous person had written save for two notes.  This performance is, I imagine, based on the instrumentation by Robert Hughues although I thought the LP was written before...but perhaps not since apparently the premiere was in 1982!

In this instrumentation, each section (there are 21) is played with a different set of instruments.  In general, each part is very short and follows the tempo markings.  Movements that stick out in my mind are #5, “Slowly yet flowing,” and #6, “Flowing broad,” both of which have a nice pastoral feel, along with #8, “Majestic-broad.” I would say most of the music is more typical of Thompson and Cowell than of Cage; none of Cage’s serial-ish experiments or rhythmic structures are heard.  

Lecture on the Weather
This and the previous were generous donations from Andre.  It was written in 1975 for voices and tapes in three parts.  It begins with a boring reading of Cage’s preface where Cage expresses his typically uninteresting (IMO, of course) political views, and also discusses Thoreau.  The work itself has three parts.  In all parts, the performers read text from David Thoreau, sing, or play instruments (though everyone in this recording seems to read).  Some are pretty histrionic in their reading, and that offers a bit of comedy.  Most of it is unintelligible, due to the crowded situation.  I think the work is best appreciated without trying to focus in on any voice, and just listen to the babbling.  

Each of the three parts features different background sounds: first wind, then rain, and then thunder.  In the last part a film featuring projected negatives of Thoreau’s artwork.  The wind is not that easy to hear because it’s a little tough to distinguish it from a thunder sound, or random microphone breathing noises.  I think the rain is a little more distinctive, but it’s still hard to hear since the sound seems a lot lower than the voices.  The thunder, finally, is quite obvious (as you might expect).  I can’t help imagining these text-reciting people standing around outside in a thunderstorm.  I think the projected images, probably unrecognizable in negative, would add a lot to the atmosphere of thunder and voices.  

Haikai for Gamelan
This was a work written in 1986 for the Evergreen Club, and they recorded it something like 12 years later.  I guess they were not in a big hurry!  It’s for a gamelan, but I don’t quite recall which variety of gamelan it is.  But to be blunt, it doesn’t matter much.  To my ears gamelan music sounds distinctive primarily by the style in which it is played (there’s some great recording samples online worth checking out).  However, with Cage’s generall brief and quiet tones, it’s hard to tell much of a difference between the gamelan ensemble and any other group of instruments, especially most of the percussive sounds.  It has a feel similar to that of the later number pieces, but I don’t think it uses time brackets; each of the eight Haiku has seventeen events, with varying durations, and essentially the different parts cannot be distinguished.  
I feel like this gamelan ensemble is best suited to loud, raucous music rather than the very slight performance that Cage has written for them.

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